On Thursday, The AJC’s Watchdog reporter, Chris Joyner, published a story exposing some details about a political action committee affiliated with Georgia House Speaker David Ralston named the “Ralston Conservative Leadership Fund.” The fund is described as “secretive” in the story, which kind of surprised me, since I knew such a fund existed, even if I didn’t know its name. A Gold Dome veteran told me that the fund was openly talked about at the Capitol.
So how secret was it? I decided to Google the fund name to see what I could find. The search results told me the fund’s website was rclf.us, but is no longer active. The Internet Wayback machine, however, shows us what it looked like back in January. Although the site might be gone, the donation page is still publicly accessible. There are also links to political contribution reports showing donations to RCLF, including from WellPoint, AT&T, and Pfizer, among others.
Clearly, the fund wasn’t a deep secret, given its website and other information. The fund is properly registered with the IRS as a Section 527 organization. In Georgia, a 527 does not need to register with the state ethics commission unless it donates more than $25,000 to campaigns, or make any sort of political expenditures. According to the AJC, the fund never met those thresholds. In 2014, the fund received $67,500, and spent $26,681. Expenses went to legal fees for setting up the fund itself, and website hosting and flyers for the fund. None were political expenditures requiring registration with the ethics commission. The fund went dormant following the 2014 elections.
Since it raised over $50.000 in 2014, the fund should have provided a report to the IRS showing who contributed to it, and how much they contributed. The fund’s lawyer told the AJC that it was not filed due to an oversight, and would be filed in the near future. The fund’s failure to file a required report should subject it to any penalties for late filing required by the IRS, but it doesn’t make the fund’s existence a secret.
One reason the fund may have gotten extra scrutiny by the AJC goes back to Ralston’s 2014 campaign for re-election, when he was challenged in the primary by Coach Sam Snider, who is conducting a repeat campaign this cycle. An organization called the Georgia Integrity Project went up against Ralston. Debbie Dooley and Julianne Thompson of the Atlanta Tea Party Patriots warned “There will be groups and people completely outside of Sam’s campaign that will be making expenditures in the race.” Whoever was making these expenditures was never revealed. In response to the AJC story, Speaker Ralston issued the following statement:
As Speaker, I’ve been subjected to the full force of “dark money” groups. Two years ago, undisclosed dollars from anonymous donors poured into my district and helped my opponent mount a bitter campaign of lies and distortions. People who had never set foot in, let alone lived in, the 7th district were sending thousands of dollars to attack my reputation – even my family. While any candidate knows politics can be a brutal, I was disheartened that certain groups were not subject to the same disclosure requirements as was my campaign.
I will continue to advocate for greater transparency and a level playing field for those who choose to involve themselves in financing their political agendas. I am confident that those responsible for the RCLF will bear this philosophy in mind as they consider future actions because I do agree that it is important to set an example.
Voters and the public will have to decide if this is a case of the pot calling the kettle black, or whether the RCLF was a legitimate effort to help get Republicans elected, albeit one that failed to file a required disclosure form.